William Feaver

Lashings of homely detail

Text settings

Norman Rockwell

Richard Halpern

Chicago University Press, pp. 188, £

Norman Rockwell’s the name. You’ll know it of course. Rockwell the byword. It wasn’t simply the perpetual air of impending Thanks- giving that gave his Saturday Evening Post covers such appeal. Rockwell covers were cover stories really; that was their distinction. Others, John Falter for example or Steve Dohano, delivered similar eyefuls of graphic cheer to the mass readership but never came near him in popularity. They could ape the manner but not the air. Legend has it that, in his heyday, every time the Post ran a Rockwell, they upped the print order by a quarter of a million. Whether this is true hardly matters: print the legend.

Every cover picture off the Rockwell easel was bound to give the reader at least five minutes of viewing pleasure, hours possibly in the pre-telly age. Between 1916 and 1963 he produced more than 300 of them. That suggests not just evenings and days and years but entire decades, in aggregate, devoted by a high proportion of the One Nation Under God to his lashings of homely detail.

None more attentive than Richard Halpern, who teaches English at Johns Hopkins and approaches Rockwell’s art and mind with the caution of a scholar fully charged with powers of textual analysis. He confesses to being more art lover than art worldly. ‘Art makes most people nervous, outsider and insider alike,’ he ventures. Rockwell’s Dickensian storytelling aspect stirs him and the possibility of uncovering hidden depths has encouraged him to proceed.

Halpern is a sight too nosey by Rockwell reckoning, what with his talk of ‘disavowal’, ‘denial’ or ‘repression’ in the work. And when he gets on to ‘the secret sexuality of the banal’ that’s enough to set the rocking chairs ducking on the front porches. Though circumspect in his delving, he pins suspect motivations on Rockwell, worrying away at the paintings while marvelling at their accomplished finish. One of his more persistent hunches is that Rockwell wasn’t necessarily altogether aware of what was going on in his pictures, that they were, somehow, beyond him. Consequently the interpreter flicks his torch on and inspects the property. We’ve been here before. This is where the private eye enters the creaky family home behind the Bates Motel.  

Flashback: Rockwell was brought up on Dickens; hence, it may be argued, the gratification theme in his work: church bells ringing and Scrooge turning out nicely after all, thanks to those blessed Cratchits. Blatant heart-warming pleases everybody, even the cynics, who see it as plot manipulation. Trained, like most American artists until the Pollock era, to aim for success as an illustrator, Rockwell understood market requirements. Like Winslow Homer, like N. C. Wyeth and his son Andrew, like Edward Hopper, he majored on high resolution convincing detail. ‘I’m like the Russian artists,’ he once said, referring to Soviet Socialist Realists. ‘I believe in things.’

Rockwell’s beliefs were most famously expressed in his wartime paintings for posters, ‘The Four Freedoms’ of 1943, in which he turned his spotlight on ‘Freedom from Want’ (turkey dinner), ‘Freedom of Worship’, ‘Freedom of Speech’ (blue collar worker stands up and darn well speaks his mind at the town meeting), and ‘Freedom from Fear’ (decent couple unconsciously adopt a Whistler’s ‘Mother’ pose settling the kids for the night). Each of these tableaux is a storyboard in itself, packed with convincing information. No wonder Rockwells became invaluable reference works for art directors charged with establishing the look of the farm where Superman grew up or the Whimsyville where James Stewart went screwy in It’s a Wonderful Life. Talking of Jimmie Stewart, the set for Rear Window is where Hitchcock comes closest to Rockwell; or maybe he picks up more from him in the neighbourly banter of Shadow of a Doubt; or perhaps The Trouble with Harry, where villagers have droll problems disposing of a corpse against a glorious Rockwell New England autumn backdrop.

Halpern is too keen on sorting through Rockwell’s possible underlying urges to bother with the cinematic consequences of directors growing up with the Saturday Evening Post. But this, surely, is where the magazine covers most happily connect. From King Vidor and Hitchcock to Spielberg and Scorsese the indebtedness spirals. Here are the crowd-pleasing crowd scenes, the star characters, the conker-bright production values. To rummage through presumed personal worries, such as whether the artist considered himself sissy-looking or what he thought women were like, is to speculate too far. As for comparing the picture from 1956 of a child discovering his father’s Santa Claus costume in a bottom drawer and likening it to people’s reaction to photos from ‘Abu Ghraib prison, from which we extract not an empty Santa suit but hooded naked prisoners and we stand there with wide-eyed surprise’: well, did you ever?

‘If there was sadness in this created world of mine, it was a pleasant sadness,’ Rockwell wrote. ‘If there were problems, they were humorous problems.’ At least Halpern appreciates, with gusto when he allows himself the freedom to say so, that energised look, that sense of Innocence USA, before obesity and fat-headedness hit the masses.